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Future of Bountiful, B.C. polygamous sect unclear after criminal conviction

Brandon Blackmore, right, yells at a cameraman as he leaves the courthouse in Cranbrook, B.C., Friday, Feb. 3, 2017. A B.C. Supreme Court judge delivered his ruling in the case of three people who are accused of removing girls from Canada so they could be placed in plural marriages.

Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Rebecca Musser remembers visiting Bountiful when she was about 10 years old.

Ms. Musser was raised in Utah, in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints community of Hildale. But some years, in the summer, her family would trek to Bountiful, an FLDS community in southeastern British Columbia whose residents to this day follow a form of Mormonism that permits polygamy.

Ms. Musser, now 40, returned to Bountiful this past October – but this time, she was accompanied by police. The three decades that ensued had seen her marry the church's 86-year-old prophet, flee the FLDS after his death, and ultimately testify against his son, Warren Jeffs.

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Related: Polygamist church leader says underage marriages were God's will

Back in Bountiful for the first time since leaving the FLDS, again to testify in a case that would provide the public with a rare glimpse into life inside the church, Ms. Musser was in tears.

"I cried going to the town, because there really are some good people in the midst of that," she said in an interview.

After decades of on-again, off-again police investigations into Bountiful, a stream of special prosecutors, charges, dropped charges and a constitutional reference trial, the Crown this month won a landmark case.

Brandon James Blackmore and his former wife, Emily Ruth Gail Blackmore, were convicted in B.C. Supreme Court of removing a child from Canada for a sexual purpose. Their trial heard the 13-year-old girl was taken from Bountiful to the United States in 2004 to marry Mr. Jeffs, who was in his late 40s at the time and had taken over as FLDS prophet after his father's death.

The B.C. trial marked the first time anyone had been prosecuted for the offence in Canada, despite long-running concerns about child brides in Bountiful. The Blackmores will be sentenced in April – the same month two men who have served as community leaders go on trial for practising polygamy.

With one legal precedent just established, and another case looming on polygamy itself, what lies ahead for Bountiful is unclear.

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The RCMP's primary investigator for Bountiful said its probe is "ongoing and active," though he declined to provide further details.

"If somebody is aware of these types of activities going on out in the community, they can call us and if they wanted to give us some information, obviously we'd be willing to listen," Sergeant Terry Jacklin said in an interview. "I think that's been a big obstacle, just that heavenly hush, so to speak, that they have out there, right?"

In 1995, when she was 19, Ms. Musser said she was forced to marry Rulon Jeffs, a man more than four times her age. Rulon Jeffs would serve as FLDS prophet until his death in 2002. Ms. Musser said she was his 19th wife and he had 65 in total when he died.

After the death of Rulon Jeffs, Ms. Musser said Warren Jeffs tried to force her to marry someone else. Instead, she ran.

"It was as awful and as horrific as anyone can imagine," she said of the marriage. " … I thought if that was heaven, I will absolutely take hell."

Ms. Musser fled in the wee hours of Nov. 3, 2002. She snuck past security guards and surveillance cameras and walked about half a mile before she was picked up by a friend. The friend then drove her to her brother's home in Oregon – the brother had been kicked out of the church years earlier for questioning FLDS leaders and for trying to shield his siblings from a beating, Ms. Musser said.

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Warren Jeffs is currently serving a life sentence in the United States after being convicted of sexual assault. Ms. Musser testified against him, and in the case involving the Blackmores.

In the B.C. case, the Crown relied heavily on FLDS records seized by U.S. police in 2008 and Justice Paul Pearlman recognized Ms. Musser as an expert on religious doctrines foundational to the FLDS church, including the religious importance of keeping accurate and comprehensive records.

She told the court spiritual acts, or ordinances, directed by the FLDS prophet are important and that keeping accurate records is essential.

Ms. Musser also testified about the treatment of women within the FLDS. She said a wife was expected to obey her husband completely and had no right to resist if he wanted to do something to her body.

In the interview, Ms. Musser said she remembered visiting Bountiful as a child – seeing the homes and landscape in October was difficult. She said she spent summers in Bountiful when she was nine, 10, and 12 and stayed at Mr. Blackmore's home because two of her mother's sisters were married to him.

Bountiful, which sits within the community of Lister, just outside the town of Creston, B.C., and near the U.S. border, was established in the mid-1940s. Ron Toyota, the mayor of Creston, said in an interview that while he might not agree with all of the beliefs Bountiful residents hold, they are an integral part of the community.

One of Bountiful's early leaders was Raymond Blackmore, whose son Winston would become the community's bishop in 1984. Winston Blackmore and Brandon Blackmore are brothers.

Winston Blackmore is one of the two men who will go on trial in April for practising polygamy. When he was charged in 2014, the Crown alleged he had two-dozen wives. His co-accused, James Oler, was alleged to have four wives.

Mr. Oler was also charged with removing a child, a 15-year-old girl, from Canada and was tried alongside Brandon Blackmore and Ms. Blackmore. However, he was acquitted on that charge, with Justice Pearlman ruling the Crown had not proven beyond a reasonable doubt Mr. Oler was in Bountiful at the time of the alleged offence and committed a crime in this country.

Winston Blackmore's home is down the road from Bountiful's community hall. Upon a recent visit to his residence by a journalist, a woman who identified herself as one of his wives said he was out of town and unavailable for an interview.

Blair Suffredine, Winston Blackmore's lawyer, said he first met his client when Mr. Suffredine was a provincial politician. Mr. Suffredine served as the B.C. Liberal MLA for Nelson-Creston from 2001 to 2005 and visited Bountiful on a number of occasions. He said his client's case could come down to religious freedom.

"It might be that on the facts he's breached that law, that could be the case, but he claims the right to practise his religion and the Charter protects his religion," Mr. Suffredine said in an interview. " … We're not trying to strike down the section [of the Criminal Code], that's been decided, but the question of whether he as an individual is entitled to not be punished for practising his religion is really the issue the court's going to have to wrestle with."

Robert Bauman, who in 2011 was B.C. Supreme Court's chief justice, upheld Canada's ban on polygamy in November of that year. He ruled the ban was constitutional and condemned plural marriage as a practice that encourages abuse of women, endangers children and creates an underclass of ostracized young men.

In March, 2012, Shirley Bond, who was then British Columbia's attorney-general, said legal counsel were satisfied chief justice Bauman's decision would "enable police and prosecutors to act with authority in investigating and prosecuting criminally polygamous relationships."

Sgt. Jacklin, one of two RCMP officers working on the Bountiful file, said he was limited in what he could disclose. He declined to say if there was more information about Bountiful residents in the FLDS records seized by U.S. police.

A Criminal Justice Branch spokesperson said he could not speculate on further charges.

Richard Bennett, a professor of church history and doctrine at Utah's Brigham Young University, in an interview said the FLDS is one of several groups in the Rocky Mountain region that permits polygamy. He said they are all carefully watching what transpires in B.C.

"What's happening in British Columbia is of great significance to the whole story of Mormon fundamentalism," he said.

Stephen Kent, a sociology professor at the University of Alberta who has studied alternative religions, questioned what impact any convictions would have within Bountiful. He said the rulings might lead residents to believe they are being persecuted.

"I can't imagine that people who believe that they are doing God's work on Earth will acquiesce to any state's ruling about their actions being criminal," he said in an interview.

Mr. Suffredine said it was unclear what impact the trials would have within Bountiful, though he stressed the cases were very different. He said he does not believe his client has plans to marry again.

"Whether it will dissuade anybody else in the community in the future, maybe, maybe not," he said.

Wally Oppal, who was British Columbia's attorney-general from 2005 to 2009, in an interview said he asked the RCMP to reopen its Bountiful probe in 2006. Mr. Oppal said though he had been criticized for "prosecutor shopping," that is, ignoring the advice of special prosecutors until he found one willing to lay charges, he felt vindicated by chief justice Bauman's 2011 ruling.

He said he also took satisfaction in the recent convictions.

Ms. Musser said there is no easy solution to the problems within the FLDS. She said she hopes the ruling sends a message to any society that "propagates criminal activity under the guise of God, religion, and religious freedom."

She added she would like those within the FLDS to know "they have the support they need to escape their dark situation."

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